The Germans say that their dominant attitude toward Russians is the feeling of guilt because of their role in the outbreak of the second World War. This is not true. This war was started by BOTH nations – German and Russian. The Germans are, in fact, guided not by guilt but by fear of Russia, which they are not fully conscious of. They mistakenly call this fear guilt. And Ukraine again is paying for German mistakes.
Interview with Roman KECHUR, President of the Ukrainian Confederation of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapies.
– In his famous speech in Bundestag, Timothy Snider raised the issue of German historical responsibility to Ukraine. He emphasized that the Germans link this responsibility only to Russians, not to Ukrainians. Does this asymmetrical responsibility grow out of a different sense of guilt?
– Responsibility is a social dimension of guilt. Feelings of guilt are a psychological dimension, and responsibility is a social dimension.
Timothy Snyder put the question very well. As far as I remember, he formulated it rhetorically. But I have an answer to this rhetorical question.
In fact, this has always interested me: Why such an asymmetry with this responsibility? Why is the guilt in the German debates so selective? Why is no one guilty before the Ukrainians, only before the Russians? At first, I thought that there were probably some rational, pragmatic factors – for example, that we don’t have an atomic bomb or we don’t have cheap gas. That was my initial answer – maybe a little cynical. I returned to these thoughts again – and later realized that the German people were victims of self-deception.
The Germans say that their main feeling towards Russia is guilt over the beginning of World War II. This is, in the first place, not true. Because World War II was started by both the German and Russian nations. But the main thing is that the whole story about guilt or sense of responsibility is conscious and somewhat exaggerated. The German people are largely driven by an unconscious sense of fear of Russia. And we all find ourselves in a situation where fear is inadequately called guilt.
If we replace “guilt” with “fear” in these discussions, then it becomes clear why the Germans are behaving in this way: because they are not afraid of Ukrainians, but unconsciously afraid of Russians. The Germans are a rational nation, but this fear narrows the possible strategies of relations with Russia to a dilemma: either fight with Russia – or trade with Russia. Of course, if they are afraid of the Russians and if this trauma is alive after the Second World War, then out of these options trade is chosen. Their response to an unconscious, and therefore exaggerated, fear is to rationalize their emotions through economic relations. That is, they control the aggressor through trade.
– Because it is, among other things, profitable.
– Exactly. The Germans believe that the Russians are also rational. The Germans offer a rational way out of the dilemma – we will trade. But they do not understand the “mysterious Russian soul.” They do not understand what “Russian postmodernism” is. “Russian postmodernism” means that we trade with one hand and fight with the other. This fits perfectly into the concept of the “mysterious Russian soul.” Because the Russian people, the “Russian man” behaves like a small child – he thinks that adults do not notice his fighting. He says that stands for peace, he stands for trade, and others simply will not notice that he is waging a war.
The Germans do not understand the Russians at all, but not because they are stupid. On the contrary, the German nation is very intelligent. They do not understand them because they are afraid. And they try to rationalize their fear, try to rationally explain the behavior that is in fact dictated by fear.
– In the first days of Russia’s war against Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz delivered a resonant speech in which he stated that Putin’s war “freed the Germans from a sense of historical guilt.” What could he mean?
– I can’t say about Scholz’s intentions. I can say how I see this process from the side. Politicians very often express their thoughts with clichés. Both Merkel and Scholz are no exception. It is not often possible to hear something original from politicians. Politicians are the protagonists of the wider masses. If the masses hold a certain opinion, then the leaders have to stick to this intellectual mainstream – otherwise the people will not vote for them.
If the German establishment were guided by guilt, it would feel more responsible to the Ukrainians than to the Russians. The territory of Ukraine was completely occupied during the Second World War. Almost seven million people died here. And at the same time, Ukrainians were simply victims of circumstances – unlike the Russians, who were the titular nation of the empire…
How is this manifested today? There are many good people in Germany. We see that the Germans – not out of fear, but out of conscience, out of compassion – are helping hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians now. They are ready to lend a hand, ready to accept refugees, ready to spend a lot of money – but only to the point of their fear. They are afraid to help us with weapons.
I would sum it up: the problem is not that the Germans have too little guilt. The problem is that the Germans reflect too little on their fear. They are guided by emotions, not rationality.
– Is this fear caused by defeat in the war?
– Yes. But there is another point. German Nazism was a completely totalitarian structure, a structure of total control. Society was under the absolute control of the Nazis. This control was projected externally. The Nazi doctrine foresaw that the German people would have total control over the whole world.
It was impossible to resist this idea. It was absolutely omnipotent. But it lost – and after the defeat in World War II it began to project itself on the Russians. Now it is not Adolf Hitler, but Vladimir Putin who is the bearer of totalitarian invincibility.
Insufficient intellectual elaboration of the results of the Second World War and the ban on unconventional thoughts about the war made it impossible to completely comprehend this experience. Fear was called guilt. All this was packed and covered with a thick layer of concrete in the form of ritual guilt. The result became an unrecognized basic emotion – fear.
German behavior is actually irrational. Even a child understood that Nord Stream was a way to get around Eastern European countries! And that was is not about economic interests, but about preparing the territory under the battlefield – to allow the Russians, trading with the West, to conquer the peoples of Eastern Europe! Everyone understood this, except the highly intelligent Germans. Why? Because they were afraid. Fear did not allow them to think.
– Even now Germany says: we must wait before Europe can give up Russian gas, immediate refusal will be too expensive. That is, they still hesitate.
– In other words, they want us to pay for their mistakes a second time. We have to answer that they themselves should pay for their mistakes, not us. We pay a lot for our own mistakes.
– How is this insurmountable totalitarianism projected on Russia? That is, is totalitarianism still not rooted out in the German nation?
– Technically, the perception of totalitarianism is an idea of total control, of an absolutely invincible force. For a long time, they projected it on themselves: we are a higher nation, we are a higher race. However – I must add – this phenomenon is common to all peoples. All nations have extreme radical forces that periodically become more or less popular. This idea is seething in every nation, and it must compete with more liberal, moderate views – because otherwise it would always push people to bloodshed, to the ideas of supremacy, to war.
The Germans experienced this in extreme forms. They lost World War II. But there are Russians who are a mirror image of this phenomenon – and who had won the war. There is an abyss between these nations. They are oppositely organized, oppositely oriented. But at the same time, they are both standing on the same axis and are similar like twins in their attitudes toward totalitarianism. There was Hitler – now there is Putin. Now it is not the Germans who are totalitarian, but the Russians.
This, by the way, means (and this is important) that unconsciously the Germans believe that Ukrainians have no right to resist the Russians. They believe that it is impossible to resist Russians.
– In fact, from the standpoint of social psychology, this explains Snyder’s second thesis – that World War II was fought, in fact, for who will control Ukraine – either the Russians or the Germans. Thus, Ukraine was not seen as an entity, but as an object of war. If in the mass consciousness of the Germans Ukraine is still seen as an object (they lost Ukraine to Russia, and now Russia can dispose of us as it wants), then Ukrainians have no right to resist.
– I’m not a historian, so I can’t judge. Although I would like to emphasize once again that this is how their own totalitarianism is projected on Russians.
This problem also has a postcolonial dimension: Ukraine allegedly belongs to the so-called cohort of “small nations.” And “small nations” cannot resist the “great totalitarian people.” The Germans believed that Ukraine had to submit, because they used to control their own fear in this way: everything will be fine, the Russians will be calm, no one will be attacked.
Perhaps today we have a situation, speaking of these postcolonial metaphors, when Ukraine ceases to be a “small nation” because it is competing with a “great nation.” The Ukrainian question is how to become a “great nation”, i.e. how to become a subject, not an object. In the world we live in now, it is very expensive.
– In February, the German minister predicted that the Ukrainian resistance would last no longer than three days. How does the fact that the war has been going on for the fourth, fourteenth, and forty-fourth days affect the Germans?
– I think that the Germans should be grateful to the Armed Forces of Ukraine, because the Ukrainian army is treating the German neurosis. Our army is a psychoanalyst for German neurosis because it shows that there is really no totalitarian force that cannot be resisted. And there is a colossus with feet of clay. And there is a mad, intellectually incompetent old KGB man who imagines himself to be Napoleon or Hitler. And that we are dealing with a corrupt, technologically backward, unmodernized, robbed state that lies to itself. This state wants to subdue us and scares everyone with its madness: “We will detonate an atomic bomb, everyone should be afraid of us…” Ukraine is simply showing what the real situation is.
– But still the first reaction of the Germans, probably, should be a sense of humiliation. Because it turns out that the object, which they did not consider the subject, resists totalitarianism, and they themselves are afraid.
– Yes, I agree. Because along with the treatment of fear, there will be narcissistic humiliation. But this is a small fee for the treatment of illusions. I think that the intellectual resource of the people of Germany is enormous. They will be able to calmly comprehend it.
– If the resistance of Ukraine lowers the Germans’ level of fear, then what is being done with their totalitarian nature? Does it remain?
– As I said, totalitarianism remains inside everyone – the Germans, the Ukrainians, the Americans. The problem is not who is more totalitarian. The problem is that the Germans have difficulty understanding their own totalitarianism, because their society does not recognize the affects. As soon as the affects, the main dominant experiences, are understood, totalitarianism will become controlled.
Germans are no more totalitarian than others. They simply have difficulty comprehending totalitarianism.
– Why is that important for them? What will it give them?
– They will see reality in a more rational way. They will no longer be guided by the emotions that are the result of past trauma, and will be more realistic about the perception of Russians.
Unconscious affects obscure the view. They do not allow the whole nation and its leading class to see reality soberly. If the Germans had taken a sober view of reality, they would have understood that a new Hitler was growing in the east and would not have allowed him to rise. They would have economically blocked him from the beginning. They would have pressed him at the earliest opportunity, starting with Transnistria, Abkhazia or, even more so, Crimea. And then there would have been no war in today’s Europe, and the Germans would be in a much better position than they are now.
– How does Germany react to Russia’s “boyish” rhetoric, such as “we can repeat” and “toward Berlin”? Doesn’t this sober up the Germans? Don’t they see it as a threat?
– Actually, they absolutely perceive it as a threat. They take it much more literally than we do. For them, such words are almost equal to actions. And it just paralyzes the Germans in fear.
– Does Russia itself understand well that such rhetoric is an effective tool?
– Putin used to live in Dresden. He worked for the KGB. He worked with the Stasi. He is well aware of the horror that the Russians are causing in Germany. If you are in Berlin and walk near the Russian embassy, you will catch yourself thinking that it looks like a representation of the metropolis in a colony. There are dozens of places on the streets of Berlin selling red flags, vushanki [earflaps], and valianki [Russian boots} – all these Soviet symbols.
– Ukrainians are called post-genocidal, post-colonial, post-totalitarian society; Ukrainians have many historical traumas. How does it happen that such a traumatized society dares to fight totalitarianism – and another society is trapped by fear due to trauma?
– There are many factors combined here. Germans are different than Ukrainians. The defining characteristic of the Germans is a tendency to order. The order itself is based in fear. And the defining Ukrainian idea is freedom.
– A mess is what we get under way. This is the price we pay for freedom. We are so afraid of external control and are so opposed to any government that we sacrifice order just to get freedom.
The second point: most Ukrainians fought in the Red Army. The Ukrainians did not have the experience of defeat that the Germans had.
And the third: from the Second World War until the collapse of the USSR, we lived with the Russians in the same country. And we have lived next to them for thirty years – we understand their language well, and many of us have contacts there. We know them very well. We have no reverence for the Russians. We understand that the Russian tank will break on its own, even if you do not fire an American missile. We are not afraid of them.
– Would it be beneficial for us if the Germans had guilt before Ukrainians? Or is it better for them to just look at reality realistically?
– I think we just need a rationally oriented relationship. Because relationships built on strong inadequate emotions are fragile. They tend to convert to some opposite form. I would like to build friendly relations on the basis of a rational view of a common affiliation with European discourse.
– Where should the Germans’ fear of the Russians turn?
– Nowhere. The Germans just have to understand that they were afraid of their reflection. They will realize that the Russian in their view is a hallucination. And that real Russians look completely different. That’s all.
– Will the outcome of the war somehow affect the German rethinking of fear and guilt?
– This process has already started. It is already happening. The outcome of the war will no longer affect it.
If Ukraine, God forbid, does not win, rethinking will be longer and harder. If Ukraine wins, it will be very rapid and intense. But it has already begun. Russia has shown weakness. And it has shown it not only to the Germans, but also to its own people. The Russian people have already realized their weakness, although they have not yet realized their own collapse.
Journalists: Volodymyr Semkiv and Orest Drul